Terrifying children into a life of asthma

Credit: Cellular Image/Flickr
Credit: Cellular Image/Flickr

Sometimes the clearest indicator of a family’s dysfunction is, unfortunately, illness in its children. Like the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, it’s the children who are most susceptible to the toxicity of family addiction and dysfunction. Hurt people hurt people, and literally scare the life out of little kids.

Fear – the kind of terror felt by children who live in toxic situations such as alcohol abuse, child abuse, family violence, the upheaval of divorce, concern about a parent’s depression or mental illness – impacts a child for what may well be his or her abnormally short life.

The science to support my claim is documented in the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) – epidemiological research done by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente in San Diego. This study documents the undeniable link between toxic stress caused by experiences such as family addiction, abuse, dysfunction, violence, and divorce in childhood, and adult chronic diseases such as heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes, some breast cancers, and a host of autoimmune diseases. It also shows a strong link between the adverse experiences and depression, violence, being a victim of violence, and suicide.

I’ll explore how these experiences manifest themselves as pulmonary distress – the kind of distress that leads to childhood asthma and continued pulmonary issues into adulthood. To do this, I invite you to join me in being a little kid again. In being a tiny person in a tiny body. Of being totally dependent on your mom or dad or grandparents. Of looking to them for food, shelter, clothing, nurture, love, joy.

Their joy is your joy. Their victories are your victories. If your mom is happy, everyone is happy. If your mom is miserable, chances are pretty good that everyone is miserable, especially you. Because if you’re a little kid, you don’t have the filters and distractions adults can use to deflect another person’s dark behaviors.

Adults can seek and find ways to distract themselves from their pain: a glass of wine, a cigarette, a piece of cake, a pill, the “need” to work late. Or they can create their body’s own drugs: the adrenaline rush from risky behaviors such as spending money they may or may not have, gossiping, becoming overly involved in the lives of others. Or the endorphin rush summoned up with sex, compulsive exercise, engaging in thrill sports, or a perfectionistic-driven cleaning binge. Or they can seek healthy solutions found in therapy, support groups, light-hearted team sports, a family outing or peaceful dinner, or prayer and meditation.

But you, a little kid, are simply stuck. Dependent, you must stew in the toxic brew of your family’s addictions, mental illnesses, and never-ending chaos that you want to stop, but cannot.  You sit in terror, taking shallow breaths through sleepless nights as the same behaviors are repeated. And repeated.

And so your frustration is not unlike the frustration a chained puppy feels as it sits in the hot sun, no water, no relief, no protection, pulling against the chain again and again, fearful and vulnerable when bigger dogs circle the yard to attack. Like that puppy, you are trapped, afraid, panting. Like that puppy’s body, your body generates all manner of stress hormones that do not go away the minute you find comfort, or even days – or years – after you’ve reached adulthood.

As Dr. Peter Gergen, a senior medical officer at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was quoted  in an article on WebMD.com:

“Scientists have documented a range of stressful events that have been associated with asthma symptoms. These include school exams, public speaking, family conflict, public disasters, and exposure to violence. Stress may directly affect the body or cause people to manage their asthma less effectively.”

Gergen continues: “First, stress and anxiety can cause physiological changes that may provoke an attack. These strong emotions trigger the release of chemicals, such as histamine and leukotrienes, which can trigger the narrowing of your airway.” Gergen adds that stress can also cause people to forget their medication while at the same time stress-related hormones reduce the body’s ability to fight off colds and other respiratory infections.  “Viral infections are very important causes for triggering asthma,” he says.

So as a defenseless child, your toxic stew of stress hormones bubbles up when there’s fear, and seeps into your cells, weakening them. Your body is torn down at the same time it is trying to grow, and at the same time your little spirit is trying to trust and love and be childlike. Your lungs need to expand. You need to be able to take deep breaths to oxygenate your blood and feed your brain and organs. But fear – the fear you feel when your mother drinks, or when your dad is depressed or when your teenage sister cuts herself – keeps you trapped like that puppy on a short chain. In “fight or flight” mode, adrenaline constricts blood vessels; breathing is shallow. You hurt in your heart and you don’t know how to stop it.

Maybe the swelling in your airways would have happened even if you’d been born into a family without traumatic stress. Maybe. Or maybe, like the thousands of middle-class Americans in the CDC’s ACE Study, if you are growing up in a family where there is addiction, abuse, divorce, caustic criticism, and violence, you are among the 28 million adult children of alcoholics terrified and stricken by toxic stress. If that is the case, you are, according to the study, almost four times more likely to have chronic pulmonary disease.

As Dr. Vincent J. Felitti, one of the co-founders of the ACE Study, writes in The Relationship of Adverse Childhood Experiences to Adult Health: Turning gold into lead:

The ACE study reveals a powerful relationship between our emotional experiences as children and our physical and mental health as adults, as well as the major causes of adult mortality in the United States. It documents the conversion of traumatic emotional experiences in childhood into organic disease later in life. How does this happen, this reverse alchemy, turning the gold of a newborn infant into the lead of a depressed, diseased adult? The study makes it clear that time does not heal some of the adverse experiences we found so common in the childhoods of a large population of middle-aged, middle-class Americans. One does not `just get over’ some things, not even fifty years later.

Clearly, we have shown that adverse childhood experiences are common, destructive, and have an effect that often lasts for a lifetime. They are the most important determinant of the health and well-being of our nation. Unfortunately, these problems are painful to recognize and difficult to deal with. Most physicians would far rather deal with traditional organic disease. Certainly, it is easier to do so, but that approach also leads to troubling treatment failures and the frustration of expensive diagnostic quandaries where everything is ruled out but nothing is ruled in.

My interpretation of what Felitti has written?  It is far easier to treat the symptom – be it asthma, a stomach ache, a backache – than it is to address and heal the root cause. And a root cause of asthma could be whatever it is that’s going on at home that’s evoking the anxiety that triggers the illness.

Again, I know adverse childhood experiences are not the cause of ALL asthma and childhood illness. Nevertheless, as an advocate for children of alcoholics, and as an adult child of an alcoholic myself, I must raise the question: What if pediatricians would ask about what’s going on at home? What if they would recommend a course of action that would help the parents create a home life with more joy and less terror? What if their prescription pad said: “Mom: 90 AA meetings in 90 days. Dad: Cut up the credit cards, quit spending, and catch fireflies with this child for 30 minutes each night for the next three months. Grandma: Take an anger management class MWF and a yoga class on alternate days”?

Perhaps then caring for these heart-sick children – these innocents trapped and vulnerable in their own families – would lead to a society that works to reduce the toxic stew drains, strains, and causes the death of childhood when children are supposed to be children, and the early death of so many still-terrified adults.

Carey Sipp’s first book, The TurnAround Mom – How an Abuse and Addiction Survivor Stopped the Toxic Cycle for Her Family, and How You Can, Too, guides fellow “children of chaos” to create the kind of sane and loving home life that helps prevent next-generation addiction and abuse. Follow her on Twitter @TurnAroundMom.

This post first appeared on ShareWIK.com


  1. Thanks for the article — this is basically my story too. ACE score of 6, and asthma, allergies and horrible eczema since 6 months old.

    I’m 41 now, so it’s too late for me, but at least this information is getting out there so people can be helped.


  2. For years I ran a therapeutic childcare. Back in the early 90s when so much of the brain research came into childcare training I changed how we were working with and accommodating many of our children who were diagnosed with various mental health disorders. I had noticed long before that many of the same kids had health issues.

    As a matter of fact my staff and I knew many times a divorce was coming even before the other parent. We could tell there were family problems from the children’s illnesses – especially ear infections in infants and toddlers.

    I started having my staff model breathing techniques. We began teaching children how to breathe and relax and then talk. I taught parent’s what we were doing especially with the breathing. Before this time I had nebulizers lined up in my office. We did so many breathing treatments it was unreal.

    After we implored much of Dr. Beckly Bailey’s techniques, (www.http://consciousdiscipline.com/) especially deep breathing from the diaphragm, we began to see those nebulizers disappearing. It was amazing because kids that had been on breathing machines and inhalers were able to run, jumpy and play for long periods without having an asthma attack.

    Of course we worked with many of the parents. We helped the weak distraught and abused mom get free from the abuser. We helped some get help through their churches. We called the police more than once when a parent would show up drunk or stoned. We told them and the other parent and grandparent in advance we would carry through on that promise. We turned some into Child Protective Custody and then we begged DHS workers to leave the children in our care.

    One time I even went to my senator to get the state foster care worker to allow the child to stay in our program. I felt it was important for this RAD child that we had bonded with over 3 years to remain in our care when his mother was hospitalized. Made that worker so angry that she had to pick the child up that 6 year old child and drive him to our program every morning. But we had a lot invested in this precious little boy and I was not about to let a state worker send that child into a tail spin!

    There are many avenues people in childcare can employ to help these children. Society is missing a big part of the picture when we leave childcare and early childhood programs out of the mix in treating these situations. Many of these children live in childcare. It can be their safe place in an unsafe world. They learn quickly that if they can just make it through the night that calmness and peace will greet them the next morning at their second home. At the place where loving and caring adults love them and protect them while they teach them life skills.

    I know because we did it. Today on my Facebook I have many of these kids who grew up in my childcare. They will find me and say, “Miss Linda is that you? I want to tell you about my life. I owe you and your staff so much for helping when I was a child.” I’ve had them chat me on FB about the death of their parent and then call me and say, “You are the only person I knew that I could talk about my dad. You were there when he started down this destructive path. You held me together during that time.” This from a young woman I hadn’t seen in years. She is now married with 5 little boys of her own and doing great as a mother and wife. She wanted the change. She wanted to break that destructive pattern. Her little brother wasn’t so blessed though because we lost him at 21 to a drug overdose.

    Didn’t mean to write a book it’s just that there is so much to say after having run my program for 26 years.

    Linda Ranson Jacobs

    Liked by 1 person

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